Journey to the Tourney: UK’s March Madness history
How the men’s NCAA Tournament Midwest Region No. 2 seed Kentucky Wildcats (27-6) and No. 15 seed Abilene Christian Wildcats (27-6) match up at each position — with a game prediction:
▪ Kentucky freshman Keldon Johnson (13.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg) played well (15 points, six rebounds, 6-of-10 field goals) in UK’s 82-78 loss to Tennessee in the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals. It was a bounce-back showing for the 6-foot-6, 211-pound freshman from South Hill, Va., after he made only one of seven field goals and scored four points in the Wildcats’ 73-55 victory over Alabama in the SEC tourney quarterfinals.
▪ Abilene Christian’s Payten Ricks (11.7 ppg, 40.8 three-point percentage) is one of three guards in the ACU starting lineup. The 6-2, 190-pound junior from Wichita, Kan., made five of 10 three-pointers and had 21 points in Abilene Christian’s tense, 69-66 win over Southeastern Louisiana in the Southland Tournament semifinals. In ACU’s sole game against a power-five conference foe this season, an 82-48 loss at Texas Tech on Dec. 15, Ricks went 0-of-7 from the floor and missed five three-point tries.
▪ Kentucky’s PJ Washington (team-bests of 14.8 ppg and 7.5 rpg) is sidelined for UK’s NCAA tourney opener. He is wearing a hard cast after suffering what UK says is a sprained foot in the SEC Tournament. In Washington’s absence, freshman EJ Montgomery (3.9 ppg, 4 rpg, 36 blocks) seems likely to get the call for the Cats. The 6-10, 223-pound freshman from Fort Pierce, Fla., started 6 games this season with a best performance of a double-double (11 points, 13 rebounds) off the bench in UK’s 76-48 win over South Carolina Feb. 5th.
▪ Abilene Christian senior Jaren Lewis (team bests of 13.7 ppg and 6.2 rpg; 2.7 assists, 1.6 steals) is the Wildcats’ best player. A 6-6, 215-pound product of Orlando, Lewis had a double-double, 17 points and 11 rebounds, in the Southland tourney win over Southeastern Louisiana, then came back with 20 points (on 10-of-17 shooting) and six boards in the 77-60 victory over New Orleans in the finals.
Advantage: Abilene Christian
▪ Kentucky’s Reid Travis (11.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 52 percent FGs) returned for the SEC Tournament after missing five games due to a sprained knee. The 6-8, 238-pound graduate transfer from Stanford averaged 9.5 ppg and 6.5 rpg in 25.5 minutes a game last week. A Minneapolis product, Travis is four UK wins from getting to play in a Final Four in his hometown.
▪ Abilene Christian senior Hayden Farquhar (6.5 ppg, 2.6 rpg) is in the starting lineup due to the dismissal from the ACU team in February of 6-9, 235-pound senior Jalone Friday (13.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg). A 6-7, 215-pound senior from Throckmorton, Texas, Farquhar had a boom-or-bust Southland Conference Tournament. He went 0-of-9 from the floor in the semifinals; he hit six of nine shots, two of five treys, and scored 14 points in the finals.
▪ Kentucky’s Tyler Herro (14.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 94 percent FTs) had a mixed showing in the SEC Tournament. The 6-5, 195-pound Milwaukee product hit eight of 14 shots and had 20 points and six rebounds in the win over Alabama. However, Herro had a crucial turnover as UK coughed up a late lead in the semifinals loss to Tennessee and finished with 10 points and three boards against the Vols.
▪ Abilene Christian’s Damien Daniels (3.5 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 1,8 apg) shot a combined 2-of-10 in the Southland Conference Tournament, yet the 5-7, 140-pound freshman from Kansas City made significant contributions. In the win over Southeastern Louisiana in the semifinals, Daniels hit 10 of 10 free throws. Against New Orleans in the finals, Daniels had five steals. The February dismissal from the team of guard B.J. Maxwell (9.2 ppg, 4.7 rpg) cleared a starting spot for Daniels.
▪ Kentucky’s Ashton Hagans (7.7 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 4.9 apg, 1.8 steals) compiled a double-double, 10 points and 12 assists, while turning the ball over three times, in the SEC tourney loss to Tennessee. The 6-3, 192-pound freshman from Cartersville, Ga., shot a combined 5-of-15 from the floor in the SEC Tournament and can likely expect NCAA tourney opponents to test his ability to make jump shots.
▪ Abilene Christian’s Jaylen Franklin (10.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 4.9 apg, 1.8 steals) was rock-solid in the Southland Conference tourney. The 6-2, 205-pound senior from Little Rock, Ark., had 10 points, five rebounds and five assists before fouling out in the semifinals. In the championship game, Franklin hit five of eight shots and finished with 16 points and six assists.
▪ Kentucky’s Nick Richards (4.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg, team-high 45 blocked shots), a 6-11, 244-pound sophomore, will also presumably carry a greater role for the Cats with PJ Washington sidelined. In 3 games in last year’s NCAA tourney, Richards played a combined 21 minutes and had 5 points and 5 rebounds. Freshman guard Immanuel Quickley (5.5 ppg, 39.8 percent FGs) hit four of four shots, three treys, vs. Alabama in the SEC tourney quarterfinals, but made only one of four field goals in the semifinals loss to Tennessee.
▪ Abilene Christian’s Joe Pleasant (5.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 55.3 percent FGs) is the son of longtime NFL defensive linemen Anthony Pleasant. A 6-8, 220-pound freshman, Pleasant averaged 10 ppg and 4.0 rpg in the Southland tourney and had 14 points, six rebounds and two steals in the finals. Junior guard Trey Lenox (2.3 ppg, 1.2 rpg) played well in Abilene Christian’s loss at Texas Tech, hitting three of four shots and scoring eight points.
Intangibles and history
▪ Kentucky has won more NCAA Tournament games (126) than any other program. Abilene Christian is making its first appearance in the Division I tourney in its sixth season since transitioning upward from Division II.
▪ No. 2 seeds are 24-4 vs. No. 15 seeds since 2012.
▪ As with all NCAA Tournament favorites, it behooves UK to drop the hammer on Abilene Christian early. In the NCAA tourney, the longer a round-of-64 game remains close, the more pressure there is on the higher-seeded team.
Kentucky 71, Abilene Christian 53